Magazine Perspective

Teaching after the Insurrection

Belonging and othering in the classroom

By Johnnella E. Butler

Summer 2021

Faculty developmentprograms in higher education frequently focus on educational practices advancing diversity, inclusion, and student success. They also usually address how to handle tense class disruptions arising over controversial topics. What faculty development programs usually fail to tackle, however, are fundamental questions of belonging. Who belongs? Who is othered? Who gets told they don’t belong? These questions often remain unspoken in the classroom, but their presence emerges in uncomfortable and even angry reactions when students feel guilty about, implicated in, or victimized by historical or current political and cultural conflicts.

The contentious 2020 presidential election and the subsequent January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol brought into sharp relief the concepts of belonging and othering, as well as the way beliefs based in strong emotion can distort critical analysis of facts. Belonging and othering, rooted in the nation’s unresolved legacies of slavery, catalyze systemic injustices, which were signified on January 6 by rioters parading the Confederate flag through the Capitol and displaying other symbols of white supremacy and antisemitism. The “alternative facts” during the preceding four years—such as then–White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Donald Trump’s inauguration had the largest attendance in history, despite evidence to the contrary—now constitute an alternate reality in which rampant election fraud denied Trump victory. One in three Americans, according to a June 2021 Monmouth University poll, believes this alternate reality. The question of who belongs and who does not is also evident in the 389 bills in forty-eight states as of May 14, 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, that severely restrict voting rights, as well as the current legislative attempts in twenty-six states as of late June 2021, according to Education Week, to regulate teaching about systemic racism, sexual identity, and even social justice.

Despite our efforts to increase diversity, inclusion, and student success, we in higher education have not done enough to help our students understand our nation’s complex history and the ways democracy works for some and not others. Questions of belonging and othering simmer in discussions of slavery, the Trail of Tears, hate crimes, and police brutality. When we fail to study such topics in their historical context, students of color can feel angry, stereotyped, and othered. White students can feel misplaced guilt and also displaced, seeing themselves as victims of diversity. When, for example, we teach White privilege outside the context of systemic injustices, we obscure the classed historical experiences of poor Whites and the racialized historical experiences of Italian, Irish, Jewish, and other Americans.

At the 2019 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, four colleagues and I conducted the workshop “Interrupting Our Own Practices: Redesigning Faculty Development for These Chaotic Times.” We gave participants the discussion prompt “A Surly Seminar,” which includes behaviors we had experienced or observed or that had been described to us:

In a class preparing for study abroad in Ghana, a White male student, echoing the political discourse from the then–US president, referred to Ghana as a “s—hole country.” When a light-skinned African American woman scolded him, reminding him of their semester-long studies of Ghanaian culture, a White female student yelled, calling her a “half-black faker” who had no right to have defended the Black Student Union’s invitation to activist and scholar Angela Davis.

A Latinx female student reprimanded the White male for asking rude questions during a lecture given by a Native American guest poet, while the other students, notably the African American and Asian American students, remained silent until the emboldened White woman asked an Asian American student if she “liked s—hole countries when you come from China?” The Asian American student, clearly upset, responded, “I am Japanese American born in Oklahoma, and my great-grandparents were interned during World War II!” The professor, watching horrified, ended the class in a shaky voice and asked students to calm down before leaving. Some left quickly, others gathered outside and took sides, while others just sat in the classroom, dumbfounded.

In discussing the prompt, session participants offered insights that foreshadowed the Capitol insurrection’s overarching concepts of belonging and othering:

→ While the class had studied Ghanaian culture, legacies of colonialism were most likely ignored, overlooked, or discussed outside the context of a history fraught with the imposition of Western culture or the relationship of US history to colonialism.

→ Ignorance of the complexity of American history and identities prompted behavior devoid of any connections among White students to the course content on Ghanaian culture or to the experiences of students of color in regard to the Angela Davis invitation and rudeness at the Native American poet event.

→ Some White students felt empowered to dominate the class, be rude, and impose assumptions about who others are.

The discussion also focused on the high-impact practice (HIP) of diversity/global learning as an example of whether HIPs, as described in another part of the prompt, can “achieve expected outcomes in chaotic environments of strong emotions, varying perceptions, and locally and externally influenced campus climates.” Session participants suggested that campus demographic and climate data, as well as campus and local history and national context, should be considered when structuring all HIPs. Participants noted that for HIPs to be effective, faculty must establish ground rules for classroom discussions. Participants stressed their role as educators in helping students understand how identities and experiences are connected and in providing opportunities for students to explore topics “other” to their perspective and reach a researched, complex, factual reality.

An excellent example of how students can reach a complex, factual reality appeared in my email this past spring. An Ohio high school senior asked if she could interview me for a humanities class paper on identity politics. We had a long discussion about the relationships among identity, history, politics, belonging, and othering. In her paper, she explores the arguments that identity politics either polarize factions or increase representation. She also examines “middle of the road” positions of scholars who argue both the necessity of recognizing identity politics and the simultaneous need to move beyond it. “Because of the plethora of examples of identity groups working together, combined with the psychological research and intersectionality,” she concludes in her paper, “I find indisputable proof that identity politics has more potential for good than harm.”

In his 2020 bookThe Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, Michael Gorra observes that Faulkner’s South is a “land where the dead past walks,” echoing numerous scholars who have shown how the unresolved legacies of the enslaved past and the Civil War still hold sway over the nation. That dead past also walks in the nationwide politics of belonging and othering. It walks in our institutions, syllabi, classrooms, and teaching. It walks when we blame identity politics rather than systemic injustices for inequities. It walked when a faculty member at a research university shook with anger over a perceived displacement of the established literary canon, shouting, “What’s wrong with the West?” as I discussed why Maxine Hong Kingston’s TheWoman Warrior was not a memoir but a novel. The dead past walks in numerous other ways, and educators need to be ready to address it when it disrupts class learning. A conceptual framework for faculty development that explores historical and contemporary American ways of belonging and othering will guide us beyond inclusion into a “melting pot” that replicates othering to a transformative diversity, as we help students engage the interactions among texts, ideas, feelings, long-held socio-cultural assumptions, and facts.

Image credit: Towson University


  • Johnnella E. Butler

    Johnnella E. Butler is professor emerita of comparative women’s studies and former provost at Spelman College (2005–14). A member of the advisory board for the Executive Leadership Academy (ELA) at the University of California—Berkeley, she has served since 2011 as an ELA faculty member.